The A-League is back! Here are the highs and lows you may have missed as season 2019-20 finally began its final act.
JUMP TO: Break out the A-League classics | Sydney FC getting it done | Wellington's bona fides | The gall of the Mariners | The kids are all right | The state of the State Leagues | Finally some good news
Play it again, Sam
It was quite nice of the A-League to play the classics on its first night back, easing us back into things rather than playing any of that newfangled experimental stuff.
Sydney FC was second best throughout much of Thursday evening's resumption against Wellington Phoenix but, mentally strong and each player acutely aware of their roles, were able to stay within touching distance of Ufuk Talay's upstarts. One Ulises Davila brain-fade and two moments of transition later and the familiar strings of another Harboursiders win were playing: a 3-1 win, three points and the A-League Premiership all-but secured.
Unfortunately in the immediate aftermath, the biggest takeaway from the game in the eyes of many was seemingly the presence -- or lack thereof -- of VAR during the contest. No doubt there were several occasions where the technology would have sprung into action, such as Alex Rufer's escape from a red card in the 38th minute and Gary Hooper denied a deflected winner in the 84th.
But to focus the conversation on decrying or praising the absence of the VAR is to miss a number of key takeaways that could prove pivotal in determining how the rest of the season unfolds. It's especially perplexing to hear crowing about how much better the games are from those who were so keen to have the technology removed -- surely they'd revel in having the opportunity to actually talk about football?
Even when it's not there, it appears, we just can't help ourselves when it comes to VAR.
Sky Blue outlooks
For teams like Sydney and Wellington, the run into finals football is less about the pursuit of results and more about rediscovering touch, chemistry and the feel for the game. If Steve Corica's side can't pick up a single point from their remaining four games, they've got bigger problems than the Premier's Plate.
While Sydney may have taken the points against the Nix, their performance and subsequent display against the Newcastle Jets in their 2-1 loss on Tuesday evening hinted at issues the Sky Blues will need to address to solidify their title favouritism. Re-starting their campaign against two of the league's better midfields, even if Cameron Devlin was missing for the Nix, the defending champions found themselves unable to dictate proceedings in that all important midfield battle. As a consequence, were forced to rely on their mental resoluteness and unmatched lethality to get the job done.
Against Wellington it worked; a moment of brilliance by Milos Ninkovic with scores tied freeing Trent Buhagiar to do Trent Buhagiar things and setting up a win. But against the Jets, where the pairing of Steven Ugarkovic and Angus Thurgate impressed before the latter was replaced by Dimi Petratos. Sydney was, despite holding the lead, left chasing heels as their foes all too easily moved the ball into attacking positions. Ultimately, if it weren't for the Jets profligacy in front of goal they would have taken the lead much earlier.
Don't get it twisted, Sydney is still title favourites and with more favourable matchups in Melbourne City and Adelaide United to come, they'll likely secure the Premiership forthwith. But there are lessons to be learned from the opening two games.
Yellow and Black outlooks
The effort turned in by Wellington against Sydney certainly did little to damage their bona fides as genuine title contenders. As a bonus, the impressiveness of the Nix's performance, which as mentioned saw them control the game for much of the contest, was largely delivered without the services of Davila, Hooper or the ying to Matti Steinmann's yang: Devlin.
Reno Piscopo's willingness to take the initiative and attempt to get things going in the attack and create chances was a welcome sight and it's no coincidence that the two moments of transition that won the game for Sydney came without the anchoring presence of Steinmann and Devlin at the base of the Nix's midfield.
Returning against Perth Glory on Wednesday night, Devlin flashed his nippy, terrier-like best on both defense and attack in his side's 2-1 win -- reaffirming just why he's a future Socceroo. Even though there was a decided placement of the cue in the rack following their second goal -- leading to a frantic rearguard effort -- on balance of play over the full 90 his side deserved their win.
What to do about the Mariners?
In their first game without the services of Diego Castro, Tony Popovic's side struggled to get into areas where they could let loose with meaningful shots; Dane Ingham's goal coming from a dead ball situation and it taking until the 80th minute before substitute Carlo Armiento had the Glory's first shot on goal from open play. In their subsequent game against the Nix, Ingham's goal once again arrived via set piece.
Nonetheless, even if Perth was never able to shut the door, it never felt like the Mariners had the means to force their way back into the contest. For while they might have the league's best social media game, the Mariners are not a good football side. Equalling an A-League record with their 11th straight defeat and all but certain to secure the wooden spoon, the Gosford-based are sinking to levels hitherto unseen in the A-League.
In a perfect world, the consistent abominableness that they produce would see them replaced on sporting merit by another side, with the Mariners, in turn, able to rebuild and reload at a lower level and attempt to come back stronger than before. Yet as we are so often cruelly reminded these days, this is not a perfect world and, without the spectre of relegation hanging over their heads, the Mariners place in the A-League is likely safe no matter how badly they perform.
Thus, it was somewhat galling when the Mariners released a statement on Saturday expressing their disappointment that the Western Sydney Wanderers academy side was temporarily promoted to the highest tier of NPL NSW football while theirs and the Jets' sides were not. From an academy perspective it's the right thing to do -- youth coaches want their kids playing at the best level possible -- but the irony of an A-League club, let alone one set to record their third wooden spoon in four years, complaining about not benefiting from movement between the tiers of Australian football will not be lost on anyone.
Children are the future
Putting aside Sydney against Wellington -- both sides have retained their squads over the course of the COVID-19 break -- the opening games of the 2019-20 season's resumption gave us a glimpse at what the competition might look like should the A-League move to limit foreign players to three. Teenagers Joel King, Kristian Popovic, Gabriel Popovic, Taras Gomulka and Samuel Silvera all started for their respective sides, while Jordan Courtney-Perkins, Dylan Ruiz-Diaz, Alou Kuol, Armiento and King all made appearances off the bench.
Ruiz-Diaz and Kuol were amongst the Mariners best performers when they took the field against the Glory, demonstrating a fearlessness and willingness to take players on.
With a number of sides finals hopes all-but dead heading into the last few games of the regular season and economic indicators -- both in terms of salary cap contraction and potential new avenues of income in the form of domestic transfer fees -- providing a clear impetus, the benefits of playing youngsters in moments where they actually have the ability to contribute meaningfully should be obvious.
The absolute state of the State Leagues
Another benefit to the raft of foreign departures and the inability of clubs to immediately replace them has been the sudden surge in National Premier Leagues players getting a rare chance in Australia's highest tier.
A-League sides, whether it be due to a lack of will, a dearth of adequate scouting, mistrust of the competition's level or some combination thereof, have traditionally been loath to recruit from the ranks of the NPL; players (and coaches, in the case Mark Rudan and Warren Moon) that do break through the exception rather than the norm.
These new signings are therefore a welcome development, and the ability of clubs to effectively leverage the NPL as a relatively cheap means of acquiring talent will be an important one in the future. With the introduction of proper transfer fees, it will also open up a potential revenue source for lower-tier clubs.
Spare a thought, though, for players from the country's strongest competition in Victoria. Prospects such as Nicholas Georgopoulos, Gerrie Sylaidos, Yusuf Ahmed, Josh Wilkins, Lirim Elmazi, Michael Weier, Paul Wilson, and Stefan Valentini have all shown enough in NPL Victoria to merit a shot in the A-League but, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic making it impractical to bring them in to plug holes, one of their best chances may be slipping away.
The same goes for the women's game. The mass departure of stars from Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City's women team's would have seemingly presented the perfect opportunity for players in Victoria's NPLW competition to secure a rare opportunity at W-League level, only for the pandemic to dash any hopes of using the 2020 campaign as an audition.
But here's the good news
Pessimism can often be the default emotion for observers of Australian football -- and history has told us that that isn't necessarily an unfair position. So it is always good to take the chance to, free from cynicism, highlight something unashamedly positive that's happening in Australian football.
This week, it's the continued strong growth of the W-League: a shining beacon in football and, as it turns out, sport as a whole. According to research by Roy Morgan, the W-League, afforded greater recognition in a World Cup year and broadcast on the ABC, saw it's audience grow 43% year-on-year, with both men (26% growth) and women (83%) tuning in more often.
Heading into a Women's World Cup on home soil in 2023, it illustrates the importance of continuing to invest and promote the women's game in the years ahead and, with 80% of W-League viewers over the age of 35, it shows that there are a significant number of hearts and minds that can be won for generations to come.